Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, July 29, 2015, 11:34 a.m.
First of all, a brief story. Some years back, I was in Florida early for Speedweeks, and the New England Patriots were playing the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, which was in Jacksonville, and I went to a bar in St. Augustine to watch some friends play music. I wore a Red Sox cap because I’m a fan, and I wear a Boston cap a lot of times if I’m wearing a cap at all.
When I got to the bar, people I didn’t know either acted like we were friends or seemed notably standoffish. It took several minutes of high fives and thumbs downs before I realized that the Patriots fans all thought I was one and the Eagles fans thought I wasn’t.
I’ve rooted for the Red Sox all my life because my father’s baseball hero was Ted Williams. He also loved Johnny Unitas, which was why I grew up rooting for the Baltimore Colts. My love of the Red Sox wasn’t based on geography. I respect the Patriots and still do, but they’re in that middle ground of teams I neither like nor dislike.
What “Deflategate” demonstrates, to me, is, (1.) I can’t believe how every scandal has to have a “-gate” at the end of it, more than forty years after Watergate, and (2.) most people will forgive a sin, but they can’t abide a hypocrite.
I can’t believe that Tom Brady hasn’t noticed this.
I don’t believe the Patriots went to the Super Bowl, and won it, last year because Brady was throwing a football with less air in it. I believe Brady probably let it be known that he liked the feel of footballs with a little less air in them, and the people in charge of such things tried to make their star quarterback happy. They managed to get the balls approved by the referees, and it seems to me that, if anyone was at fault, it was the refs who probably held the footballs, squeezed them, and deemed them suitable for use.
As far as great scandals go, this one is pretty weak.
Unfortunately, Brady, instead of saying, over and over, “I don’t really think this is a big deal,” responded by imitating a weasel, and, like about a thousand politicians and a similar number of coaches, recruiters, lawyers, used-car salesmen, and guys who sell fruit on the side of the road, played that plausible-deniability game until he ran out of plausibility.
Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone.
When I was a kid, I used to try to play football without hip pads — I got caught once by the officials — because I thought it allowed me to move better. I could’ve gotten hurt, and, if I had, it would have been my fault. No one told me to do it. I got in trouble when the zebras nabbed me. I had to run after practice the next Monday.
I remember reading books by Jerry Kramer, the great guard of the Green Bay Packers, in which he said he always wore shoulder pads that were too small for the same reason. (I tried that, too, but the coaches wouldn’t let me get away with it and made me wear the pads all the other linemen wore.)
Some good has come from this. For instance, when the season begins this year, I bet the zebras will pay more attention to the footballs being submitted for approval before the games.
I really didn’t blame Brady much until this cell-phone destruction business came along.
Now I just think, Tom, you’re a great quarterback, and this is a really stupid way to ruin your reputation and legacy.
Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, July 26, 2015, 10:38 a.m.
As I sat on the hard, fourth-turn concrete of Laurens County Speedway, it occurred to me why I hadn’t been there in so long.
My friend Joe VanHoose accompanied me. He lives in Athens, Ga. When, a few days ago, I had written a blog about NASCAR’s Truck race at Eldora Speedway, I mentioned that I liked watching the action at local dirt tracks. Joe said he was free and would go with me. He had to drive to Charlotte and back, so he detoured through Clinton, and we spent the afternoon playing our guitars, alternating back and forth between songs we had written, and watching the Xfinity Series race from Indianapolis.
Time flew. It was great fun. We compared and contrasted our music styles, and finally we made our way up to the track, which is about ten miles from my house.
My “Eureka moment” came when I thought what it would have been like if I hadn’t had a friend to come along.
I’d have walked in and found a seat on that concrete. The stands at the track are hard for me to get up and down because I have one knee that is bad and another that is getting worse because of favoring it over the bad one.
When I go to ballgames alone, particularly baseball, I often strike up conversations with nearby fans. In fact, highly ranked among the reasons I love baseball is the fact that I often make friends with people I’ll never see again for a span of nine innings.
Had I gone to the track alone, I would have talked about the same things I talked about with Joe. I would have reminisced about old times at other tracks, told stories about Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Bud Moore, David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Cotton Owens, and others, and the fellow who would have been sitting next to me would have thought to himself, Well, this fellow is quite the bullshitter. I know this because, if the roles had been reversed, I would have thought the same thing.
Fortunately, Joe knows that my job was writing about NASCAR for twenty years, and he was satisfied that all those stories really took place. Joe also goes to a lot of short tracks, giving him perspective I lack, and I would have known he knew about that of which he was speaking, too.
Many people in the USA, and a few abroad, follow me for my racing perspective. Around these parts, people remember when I used to cover the Red Devils and Blue Hose for The Clinton Chronicle and The Laurens County Advertiser. In the off chance that the theoretical fellow had known who I was, he might have asked, “You still working at The Chronicle, I reckon?” and I would have replied, “No, I left there a little over twenty-five years ago,” and he would have said, “Oh.”
This has happened. Many times.
Sometimes it seems like the only place on earth where I get no respect is my hometown, and, when I think that, I realize further that Clinton is also the only place where I don’t get my ass kissed, and since I don’t leave Clinton very often anymore, my ass has become largely unloved.
This is not a bad thing. This is functional in its way. I believe I prefer it to the alternative. Clinton keeps me grounded. On a hard slab of concrete in the fourth turn of a dirt track nearby.
The racing? I’ve seen better. Joe and I sat there, watching and swapping tales, and, for the most part, we probably learned the names of five drivers out of all the local heroes in all the local classes, and, in most cases, we had no idea how many laps the racers would run. We barely glanced at our phones, didn’t follow the racing on Twitter, weren’t hooked into timing and scoring, and if we missed a wreck, we didn’t get to see the replay.
In just about every class, though, every car went through every turn sideways, and sideways at Laurens County Speedway is a lot more sideways than what gets announcers hyperventilating on paved superspeedways. In fact, sideways at Laurens County Speedway was more sideways than trucks racing around Eldora.
Taken as a whole, it was a unique day and night. I don’t believe I’ve ever spent an afternoon playing music and then a night in which the other musician and I went to a dirt track. I’ve played music before a NASCAR race, and after, as well, but that’s a whole different vibe.
Taken together, it was an exquisite experience. I could see Joe and me doing it again sometime soon.
Later today, I’ll watch the Sprint Cup royalty race at the antithesis of Laurens County Speedway (assuming rain doesn’t fall in Indianapolis). The 3/8th-mile of red clay had a good crowd. The crowd at the 2-1/2-mile of asphalt will be about a hundred times larger. One of the lower divisions at Laurens had a first-time winner, whose name now escapes me, and team member and other drivers treated him to what is a apparently a Laurens tradition of rolling the first-timer in mud at the bottom of the front straight.
The Brickyard winner will kiss bricks.
What has changed since I last attended a dirt-track race?
The dust wasn’t as bad. I wore some goggles that came with a weed-eater I bought about twenty years ago and have never used with the weed-eater, but they weren’t necessary, though several times, I did have this weird sensation of wanting to go swimming.
The crowd wasn’t as partisan. In the past, it hasn’t been uncommon for me to sit near warring bands of fans, each rooting for one driver and professing unbridled hatred for the no-good so-and-so for whom the other jackasses were cheering. Perhaps those people were sitting on the straightaway, and the fans in the turn were more detached and disinterested.
I also missed the obligatory drunk, parading up and down the worn path in front of the grandstands, shaking his fists while relatives just told everyone else, “Don’t mind Uncle Jack. He’ll be ah’ight.”
It cost ten bucks apiece to get in. Parking was free, though the lot was rutted, and I’m glad I brought the truck. Joe and I didn’t sample the concessions, though I’d bet they were reasonable and probably quite similarly priced to Clinton High football.
It wasn’t too hot. When we got back to the house, I told Joe thanks for coming and be safe on the way back to Athens. I went to bed and “dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summer time, of old dogs, and children, and watermelon wine.”*
Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, July 23, 2015, 9:44 a.m.
My memory is mostly photographic. If you ask about some NASCAR incident, I won’t remember it by fact but by image. I’ll have to look up the facts, but, in my mind, I’ll see a wreck, say, and I’ll know where it was because of the perspective of the image or because I see “Talladega” or “Atlanta” on the wall behind my image of cars crashing.
So my memory of attending NASCAR races on the then-dirt of Greenville-Pickens Speedway involves the smoky image of Richard Petty roaring into the turn in a Plymouth Road Runner, and I’ll know those races were in 1968, and I can see that lovely Petty blue blended with the swirl of the red clay dust. The track was paved in 1969, and my image of Bobby Isaac driving the K&K Insurance Dodge Charger to victory is unclouded by having to squint to see it on the back straight.
While I covered NASCAR, there were no dirt tracks, but I sometimes traveled nearby to watch the masters slip and slide. Jim McLaurin and Rick Minter accompanied me to 311 Speedway in Madison, North Carolina, near Martinsville, Virginia, and Len Thacher and I spent a marvelous night at Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania. I drove alone from Pocono to Big Diamond to watch USAC Sprints, and David Poole and I drove over to Eldora to watch Midgets back before Earl Baltes sold the place to Tony Stewart. The mental snapshots of all those trips are vivid.
My trips got rarer when I ran out of people who’d go with me, and now I find it amusing that a few Truck races at Eldora have turned all my colleagues who wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track with a gun on them into boosters declaring them the greatest of them all.
Back then, they wouldn’t have gone to a dirt track for Marriott Points.
I suspect many of dirt-track racing’s great media champions have never been to one that isn’t named Eldora.
It was a grand show last night, but the racing wasn’t any better than when I watched Billy Hicks win at 311 or Steve Francis capture the Shrine Race at nearby Laurens Speedway.
Plus, I watched it on TV. I expect many of those now hyperventilating watched it on TV, too, albeit from the refuge of the Eldora media center, where they had tighter access than I to all the glowing remarks from drivers who have less experience racing on dirt than they have watching it.
The true fan test of appreciating dirt-track racing isn’t from the living room. It’s better in person, and it’s better when most of the drivers have a clue about how to do it.
I’m neither surprised nor displeased that a dirt tracker, Christopher Bell, won the Mud Summer Classic. Nor am I surprised that the Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty, did well, because the first time I saw either of Richard Childress’s grandsons race was at 311 Speedway.
One of the reasons dirt tracks fell off the NASCAR radar screen was growth. The box score lists the attendance at one of those long-ago Petty victories at 7,200, which was a packed house at Greenville-Pickens. NASCAR left the dirt tracks, though, because they were untidy and NASCAR wanted races that were tidy.
When I go to a dirt track, I wear safety glasses or goggles because I also wear contact lenses, and without protection, it feels not unlike having thousands of tiny needles fired at my eyeballs.
If it’s hot — and when isn’t it? — do not wear a white shirt to a dirt track. It will never be white again.
The last time Minter and I drove down to Madison, on the Saturday night before a Martinsville Sprint Cup race, the next morning I drove to the race before the sun came up, and I left it long after the sun went down. The next morning, when I drove home, I noticed people gaping at my Honda, the one I still drive, and discovered it was no longer blue but rust-colored. It had red clay caked all over it. I pulled off the highway in Salisbury and ran it through a car wash lest I feel compelled to live out of it.
It’s worth it. Dirt tracks are great, but they’re not for the casual watcher (someone wisely pointed out to me the other day that “casual fan” is as much a contradiction in terms as “tail end” or “forward bite”) or the captain of industry. They are uncouth places to “wine and dine.” Dust is a much better condiment for hot dogs than sushi.
Many of NASCAR’s present-day movers and shakers are out of their elements at Eldora, though they are able to tough it out in the comfort of their refuges from the dust and smoke.
The race is a nice, little diversion. It’s quaint.
A year ago, when Kyle Larson’s truck spent more time on the wall than off it — one of the TV announcers actually said he hit it 433 times, and I laughed so hard — you would have thought he’d not only done it by design but because he possessed more skill than Curtis Turner.
Me? I thought it was embarrassing.
Trucks are unwieldy on dirt. Stock cars are unwieldy on road courses. It’s part of their charm, but the allure of real dirt-track racing isn’t charm. It’s control of the uncontrollable, in addition to power, boldness, courage, and skill.
I enjoyed the race, too, but if I really want to see racing that will blow my mind, I’ll go to Laurens Speedway on Saturday night.
Of course, I doubt I will. I won’t be able to find anyone to go with me. To paraphrase one of my favorite stanzas from the philosopher Tom T. Hall, they might pat your fanny and say you’re a dandy, but they still don’t like dirt tracks in Daytona Beach.
Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, July 21, 2015, 1:20 p.m.
I’ve been doing something I don’t do every day. Lately, I’ve been doing it every two years. I’m reading my novel. Yeah, I wrote it. My novels have been published in 2011, 2013, and, now, 2015. The next one’s going to be out sooner than that.
It’s not necessary. I mean, I know what’s in it. It’s a little painful. A few itsy-bitsy typos are still there, but I seldom read a book where I didn’t pick up a few, and I know it’s already been proofread by me during every draft, and again before it was published, and it’s really hard to catch little typos because absentminded mistakes are hard to find because one can’t imagine making them.
Mainly, I’m proud. I’ve written a good book, not that I’m objective or anything. Some won’t like it. Some will find passages they deem offensive. I respect their views. A book has to reflect my views. I had some things to say, or for Chance Benford, the main character, to say, and I didn’t feel the need to censor him because the way he was is the whole point of writing it.
Here’s a video.
Chance is both a religious man and a sinner. I don’t think it’s unusual. Some rather harsh events in his life contribute to his ability to rationalize away his own behavior. I started writing Crazy of Natural Causes because I wanted to make some great observation on the nature of sinful man.
It was supposed to be funny. It wound up being serious, but still, I think, amusing. I can relate to Chance. I expect most folks can, and that’s why I believe most folks will enjoy reading it.
Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, July 17, 2015, 2:33 p.m.
Tony Stewart and I go way back. I wrote a book about him years ago, early in his career, but I haven’t talked to him since 2012, and his troubles are hard to analyze from afar. I read the transcript of a media conference from a few days ago, and it made me sad.
It seems impossible that Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion, is struggling so, and it seems just as unlikely that he doesn’t seem to know what’s wrong. He doesn’t blame his crew chief, Chad Johnston. Nor does he blame his crew. He blames himself. He takes it like a man.
The new “package” in place this year has mystified Stewart. Someone asked him how much he has to “change.”
Change. Tony Stewart. What a concept.
“Honestly, I don’t know that because I haven’t figured it out,” Stewart said. “It’s a scenario that, when you drive for so long, you’re used to one thing, I mean, coming into this year, and taking the amount of horsepower they took out was a pretty radical change for the Cup Series.
“I think it was more the horsepower reduction than it was anything [else] that I feel like has hurt me this year. I’ve grown up driving high-horsepower cars, high power-to-weight-ratio cars. This is what I’m used to feeling.”
It doesn’t just mystify Stewart. It mystifies me. Stewart was, and still is, the great throwback to the drivers of an earlier generation — A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue, and others — who could climb into anything with four wheels and win with it. He was the last of the red-hot racers, a champion in both IndyCars and NASCAR, not to mention the best midget racer I have ever seen.
How could Tony Stewart struggle this long in anything?
It makes me think of my response many years ago when Stewart told me he had purchased a team of greyhounds.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You love racing so much that they don’t even have to have wheels on them?”
I also want to declare that I’m not counting him out. I’d never count out Stewart. I’ve seen him perform too many amazing feats of driving virtuosity. His 2011 Chase remains the most amazing performance over a 10-race span I have ever seen.
Here’s what I have concluded. Citing a horsepower reduction of 125 just doesn’t account for Stewart’s woes. It would explain much more for those less talented.
Stewart may be the ultimate example of what I’ve believed for two decades. I’ve written it. Few others have accepted it because, in my opinion, they were in denial. The numbers are there.
The drivers who maintain their skills well into their forties are those who remain active. The popular notion is that young drivers need the seat time, and perhaps those who haven’t fully honed their skills do, but the decline of almost every NASCAR star has coincided with cutting back on the schedule and competing only in Cup. The drivers who kept on winning were those who were willing to climb into a race car any time a nearby short track opened its gates on a Thursday night when the engines were quiet at the big one.
Being active was the reason Stewart stayed sharp. What’s more, it was even more important for Stewart than most others because he loved it so much, running dirt modifieds and winged sprint cars, showing up unannounced and racing with the local heroes.
Then he took two terrible blows, one injuring him physically and the other emotionally. In 2013, Stewart suffered a horrible leg injury, and, in 2014, he was involved in an accident in which a young driver, Kevin Ward Jr., lost his life.
He missed a lot of time, and his skills dissipated. The older he gets, the harder they are to regain. I suspect he remains haunted by Ward’s death.
Another aspect of Tony Stewart’s personality is that, beneath the bluster, he is quite sensitive. He is a man who can be an ogre, and the reason is that it hides his rich humanity, and, like many athletes, he sees it as a sign of weakness.
I’m afraid his valor has been beaten down into a hollow shell. When I hear him speak, he seems muffled and restrained to my distant ears.
I can’t wait to see him conquer his demons and win again. I don’t know if he will. For the first time, I doubt his capacity to recover.
But, as noted already, I haven’t counted him out. I think he’s got a last hurrah in him, and I wish I could be there to see it. I’ve seldom wanted to be wrong as much as now.
Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, July 16, 2015, 9:15 a.m.
No, I didn’t get up at 4 a.m. to watch the British Open, though I left the TV on when I went to sleep so that, at some point, I’d roll over, peer at the screen, mutter, “I’ll be dogged,” and go back to sleep.
I started watching it at 7, though. At the time, Jordan Spieth was tied for the lead, Tiger Woods was grimacing, at which he remains world class, and it occurred to me that, while there is no logical NASCAR match to The Open Championship or any other championship, except its own, New Hampshire Motor Speedway is as close as it gets.
St. Andrews is in the northeast of Great Britain, a little over halfway up the coast of Scotland, and Loudon is in the northeast of the United States. The Old Course is quaint, and, in its way, so is the track.
The 1970 Open at St. Andrews, won by Jack Nicklaus over Doug Sanders, was the biggest reason I started playing golf. Guitar was the reason I stopped. When I was a kid, I used to pretend I was playing in the British Open, mainly because I usually played at little more than a cow pasture known as the Rolling S. (The last time I was there, the Rolling S had been greatly enhanced, almost to the point where it didn’t even remind me of St. Andrews, or Carnoustie, or Troon, and it’s located many miles from the ocean, though it does have several ponds.)
Watching Tiger Woods languishing made me think that Dabo Swinney missed the perfect opportunity to declare his team the Clemson Spieths. Coach Swinney hosted his annual media golf tournament on Wednesday. Of course, I wasn’t there, but I saw it on the 11 o’clock news, or, rather, the sports, which comes on right before Jimmy Fallon.
My mind has been as distant from sports as it ever gets, probably because (a.) the New York Yankees took two out of three from the Boston Red Sox, whom I prefer, before the All-Star Break; (b.) I watched a movie instead of the Home Run Derby; (c.) I watched two PBS documentaries instead of the All-Star Game; (d.) my new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, will be released next Tuesday; and (e.) I’ve been polishing up my next novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, just to have it ready at the opportune time.
Facebook reminded me this morning that my most recent, and possibly last, visit to Fenway Park was three years ago tonight. The Red Sox won that game in spite of the fact that Bobby Valentine managed it. In the interim, I’ve been to one other major league game, about a dozen of the minor variety, and many involving collegians, mostly the ones wearing blue hose at Presbyterian College.
Hence the moniker Blue Hose.
Adam Scott just took his first official swing of The Open Championship. The graphics on screen predictably listed him at “even.”
Tiger Woods is way back, but, on the other hand, Paul Azinger just said that Dustin Johnson “plays like a panther.”
Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, 11:46 a.m.
The week started out unevenly, but, at the moment, the uncertain seems at least normalized, and I’m in a mood of fulfillment, and fulfilled is about the best I get these days.
It’s way too early for any declaration of success, but the new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, has gotten nothing but praise in the early customer reviews, and I’m flattered that those who got copies of it in advance (by virtue of nominating it for publication) seem to think it’s better than I do.
We authors can be hard on ourselves.
Here’s a “showcase” on Crazy of Natural Causes kindly presented by fellow author Jim Jackson,
I’m happy about baseball because the Red Sox aren’t currently playing it. They’ve worked themselves back to the cusp of contention, but it’s the All-Star Break, and they dropped two out of three to the Yankees at home, leaving the Carmines six and a half back going into tonight’s ballyhooed exhibition in Cincinnati. I’m proud to say I only watched a little of last week’s Home Run Derby, the contest annually held to determine which slugger is only going to hit five more dingers the rest of the year.
Last night’s surprise was that, for the first time, I watched the old Albert Brooks/Brendan Fraser flick The Scout, which was a flop two decades ago but I found moderately entertaining. I didn’t turn to watch Todd Frazier edge Albert Pujols and listen to Chris Berman squawk until the movie was over and Steve Nebraska safely on the ground. And mound.
Without the distraction of baseball games on television, I’ve jumped back into the next writing project, a crime novel called Forgive Us Our Trespasses that is about halfway to a polished draft. I need to get it ready, but there’s plenty of time. It probably wouldn’t be wise to foist another novel of mine on the unsuspecting public before it has had time to digest the craziness of Natural Causes.
For the first time this year, or at least the first time since they actually began running races, I’m optimistic about NASCAR. The blind hogs seem to have found some acorns.
My weekly Bleacher Report column has been widely read, and last week’s was a record-setter (my personal record book), and the new weekly column, at competitionplus.com, seems to be hitting the target.
This week’s Sprint Cup race is in New Hampshire, which was a place I enjoyed visiting back when I visited lots more places than I do now. “Live Free or Die” never seemed like much of a choice to me.
Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, July 10, 2015, 9:18 a.m.
It is not my intention to recount my one unfortunate weekend at Kentucky Speedway. Sure, there was the traffic nightmare, and the best example of a track thinking all it needed was a Sprint Cup date, and everything else would just take care of itself.
Sure, it was the only place in twenty years and a little over 500 races where something was stolen from me. A “photographer,” wearing no credentials, struck up a conversation with me in the press box. I didn’t like him. He didn’t like me. I took my camera — thank God — and left for a while to take photos of the traffic jams, and when I returned, the best pair of binoculars I ever owned was gone. I am ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent sure he’s the guy who swiped them.
I didn’t go back the next year — looking for that son of a bitch was a bad sole reason for returning — and I haven’t been back to any track in the two-plus seasons since.
That being noted, I like Kentucky and Kentuckians. It’s why I made the Commonwealth the scene of the new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes. I envy Kentuckians their rugged spirits and feisty natures. They deserved better from their race track.
Kentucky Speedway, between Louisville and Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from the banks of the Ohio River, is a great example of a track that blew its big opportunity. When it had a chance to be a sensation, it left thousands, stopped in traffic for hours on the way in and the way out, saying, “Not no more I won’t. I’ll never make this mistake again.”
Locally, it’s an observation I’ve often made regarding restaurants. If a man opens a restaurant, he’d better make sure he’s ready to go when the doors open. If not, most people won’t complain. They just never come back.
It happened at Indy when the tires failed and interest waned. Traffic hassles hindered Atlanta, where now the hassles are over, in part because a new road was constructed, but partly because, by then, it was too late. People in the nearby metropolis and its sprawl just got out of the habit of going. They started rationalizing away their unwillingness to go back to a sport with races and racers that had left them behind.
Besides, it’s on TV. TV is no substitute for being there, but it sure is more convenient.
Tracks are investing millions of dollars … in tearing grandstands down. If I were them, I’d cut the rates drastically on the back straight so that people would flock to the cheap seats. Darlington hooked me on racing back in the days when the back straight was packed with Scouts: Cub, Boy, and a few Webelos, maybe even some Bluebirds and Campfire Girls. My daddy thought ten or fifteen bucks a head was highway robbery, so we sat over there in the sun, an Igloo cooler with his beer, my Pepsi, and a Sunbeam bread loaf refilled with pimento-cheese and egg-salad sandwiches, between us.
That’s the reason I love racing today, but most of the NASCAR tracks are now tearing the grandstands down so that they can “rebuild the brand.” Translation: with fewer seats available, they can charge more money for the ones they’ve got left. They’ve got interactive attractions and fan-friendly experiences, all of which come with a hefty price tag.
All those Boy Scouts built the “brand” at Darlington because lots of them grew up like me. From where do the next generation of fans come? Country clubs and gated communities seem to be NASCAR’s answer. Working-class heroes are on the wane on the track and in the grandstands.
I hope it comes back. I hope I want to go back. I just don’t see it happening. I’ve got a perspective here at home that those at the track miss. When I sit around and talk to the kids who play football, basketball, baseball, and soccer, NASCAR isn’t even on the map. Lacrosse is bigger. Ten years ago, I used to hand out caps I’d been given at the tracks to kids from Clinton High and Presbyterian College. That market’s gone.
Where I live, NASCAR has always been big. It was mainstream in the South when I was six years old. It became that way in the whole country. Here in the old home place, though, it’s retreated into cult status. It might as well be Idaho. The fellow who runs the local dirt track tells me he’s making a comeback. A night race in NASCAR doesn’t hurt the gate as much as it used to. They watch the hometown heroes sliding around and around, clay caked to their overalls, and “To hell with NASCAR!” is about as much a rallying call as “Remember the Alamo!”
Someone needs to consider that “brand” with a long-term perspective now, while there still is one.
Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, July 8, 2015, 7:35 a.m.
One of many ironies about Elzie Wylie Baker Jr. is that, the first time I met him, he asked me a question.
“You ain’t seen a ball, have you?”
I was about fourteen. My father, brother, and I were walking through the woods between two holes at a celebrity golf pro-am at Lan-Yair Country Club in Spartanburg. Buddy was there. So were David Pearson and Pete Hamilton. We were cutting across so that we could watch Don Maynard and Tommy Nobis hit shots. Later, at the autograph session, my dad looked at a signature, squinted his eyes, and asked, “Excuse me, but who are you?”
The fellow said, “I’m the first-shift supervisor at Woodside Mills.”
Stories like that were what made Buddy Baker and me friends twenty years later when I started writing about stock car racing for a living.
Buddy was the most self-deprecating man I ever knew. A man often left discussions with Buddy thinking, why, that man must have given away more victories than anyone who ever lived. He loved to poke fun at himself. Usually Buddy and I had our talks in a press box on race morning or in the serving area of an infield media center. A crowd always gathered to listen to Buddy hold court, but he’d see me and say, “Pull up a chair.”
That was before journalists started acting like they were on the clock and couldn’t have a bull session. Nowadays it has to be an interview. Even with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, it becomes “an availability.”
When that started happening, it really pissed me off. When I had dinner with a race driver, my goal was to get to know him and to make an impression so that he would get to know me. That would come in handy later, and it damn sure gave me better stories than “this new associate sponsor is holding an exciting sweepstakes that will give fans an opportunity to get to know me and all the friendly folks at Acme Discount Plumbing.”
Buddy made me laugh, and I made him laugh.
I told him a story about the crazy parties my dad used to throw at Christmas time, and how, at the same time, our house would have the preacher, the bootlegger, various other drinking buddies, a basketball player from Presbyterian College, a PC professor, two doctors, a lawyer, and our relatives from Texas, wandering around at the same time, drunk, sober, and in between. One year my dad tried to concoct this homemade eggnog. It had simmered all day and had dozens of ingredients, most of them alcoholic.
It was awful. Daddy started tinkering with it and dumped so much peppermint extract in it that the nog wound up tasting like Mentholatum smelled. The bootlegger could barely get it down. He took a swig – “Aaah. Goddamighty” — and said, “Pretty good, Jimmy, but I think it needs a little more sage in it.”
Sage is commonly used to season sausage, not eggnog.
For the rest of my career on the NASCAR circuit, every time I saw Buddy, he’d say, “You reckon that needs a little more sage in it?” and roar with laughter.
I never talked much to Elzie Wylie Baker Sr., who was known as Buck and died in 2002. I could see enough to figure, though, that it wouldn’t have been easy to be Buck Baker’s son. Nor Jimmy Dutton’s, so we had that going for us.
As a radio and TV broadcaster, Buddy has everything but a voice. It most closely approximates that of an unlikely actor, the late George Lindsey, who played “Goober” Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show. When I think of mismatched voices, three names come to mind: Buddy Baker, Jack Nicklaus, and Dean Smith.
If the truth be known, Buddy would have won more than nineteen major NASCAR races had he driven today, when cars are durable. He drove the hell of out of one, and most of the time, it didn’t last. Ned Jarrett won the first race I ever saw, and then I watched Richard Petty and Bobby Isaac win several times at Greenville-Pickens, but Buddy Baker won my first Southern 500, driving Cotton Owens’ burnt-orange Dodge Charger Daytona, which had a fluorescent-orange “6” on its sides and a flat-black roof, which made it look like it had a vinyl top, which was popular on the passenger cars of the time.
It was a crazy sight to see one of those long, winged Dodges roaring through the Darlington Raceway turns as if it were on a dirt track. Back in the days of bias-ply tires, such things were possible, and Buddy Baker, a strapping lad, could wrestle with the best of them.
I was in heaven. Everyone around me was either drunk or a Cub Scout. That was the back straight (now the front straight) at Darlington, and we sat there because Daddy was cheap, and on the mornings of the races, we’d walk through the infield, and one major difference was that there were no Cub Scouts there.
In the nineties, when I finally got to know Buddy on a non-golf-ball-retrieving basis, he told me about the time he’d gotten in a wreck at a dirt track in Maryville, Tennessee, or somewhere, and when the “rescue squad” (remember those?) tried to take him across the track to the hospital, the back door of the old station-wagon ambulance hadn’t been shut, and his stretcher rolled out, and he had his second wreck in turn one.
Tom Higgins used to tell the story of Buddy and him hightailing it to the beach for some deep-sea fishing, being stopped by the cops, and when a patrolman asked Buddy, “Can I see your license?” Buddy leaned out the window and replied, “Can I shoot your gun?”
Buddy told me about the time he was driving the K&K Insurance Dodge for Harry Hyde at Talladega and forgot where his pit was located. For some reason, Buddy, who always walked pit road on the morning of the race, hadn’t done it that Sunday. He was leading, and when it was time for the first pit stop, realized he didn’t have a clue where to do so. Radio communication between driver and crew was then at an early stage, and when Buddy tried to get instructions, all he could hear was everybody screaming. He knew the crew wore red uniforms, and that narrowed it down to less than two dozen.
“I found my pit lane on the fourth try,” Buddy said, “and when I come back out, I wasn’t but two laps down.”
I only saw him win at Darlington once, but I listened to another one on the radio, and was there twice when he was running away and headed to victory lane. Once the engine blew, and the other time, he crashed coming off turn two (now turn four).
He was as good at Talladega as anyone ever was, and I claim this because it’s impossible to compare the skill of Dale Earnhardt with restrictor plates to Buddy Baker without them. It’s like comparing sprint cars with wings to sprint cars without.
Incredibly, Buddy won NASCAR’s longest race, the World 600 at Charlotte, three times, and his first victory was in the 1967 National 500, piloting Ray Fox’s white No. 3 Charger.
The story goes that Buddy came to the press box, Chrysler executives following him in, and when the first question, “Buddy, what are you going to do with all that money?” was asked, he scratched his head and replied, “You know, I might go buy me a Cadillac.”
When I heard Tuesday night that Buddy had inoperable lung cancer, it made me melancholy but not really sad. Apparently, he asked people not to mourn him: “For those who feel sorry, hey, I’m 74 years old, have great friends, had a career …”
It’s true. He’s lived an eventful life, enjoyed himself, and cancer will never, ever kill his sense of humor. It will live forever.
My only regret is that Buddy Baker never got to know my dad.
Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, July 5, 2015, 1:32 p.m.
I was watching a documentary in which the narrator said that Charleston was “perhaps the most charming city in the South,” and I thought to myself that, in spite of the Holy City’s charm, more people want to visit Myrtle Beach because, while it is anything but charming, it is exciting.
I haven’t been to a beach since I wrote about the Coke Zero 400 three years ago, but, given the choice, I’d visit a peaceful, remote beach where I could be bitten by a shark without all the attention.
Other NASCAR races are more charming than the ones in Daytona Beach, but none is more exciting.
It feels strange waiting for this race to be run on Sunday night. It appears as if the odds are strong that the threat of rain may impede the race’s progress, but it will probably run long enough to count as official. I hope, in the interest of the fans who are assembled there and those who have to work on Monday, it ends at a decent hour. My new novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, is up for advance sale, and I’d like to be as alert and productive as possible.
They don’t schedule the races to please me. Nor should they.
NBC apparently wanted to run it on Sunday night because it wants as many people as possible to watch it. The women’s World Cup soccer match between the United States and Japan will be going on during the early stages of the stock car race, so this may hurt the ratings. It’s impressive, in a way, that we think women’s soccer can compete for the same fans as NASCAR. That overlap didn’t seem so threatening twenty-five years ago.
Soccer has its fiercely loyal audience and NASCAR its, but the ratings war is fought between the so-called “casual fans,” who will have to choose between a fifteen-car pileup and a crisply executed corner kick. The casual fans are to televised sports what battleground states are to presidential elections.
I hope you’ll consider advance-ordering Crazy of Natural Causes sometime over the next two weeks. The novel, about a man who has to start his life over, will be available for immediate download on July 21. If you order it early, it might impress the publisher — Kindle Publishing through its KindleScout selection process — and raise the level of excitement. Or maybe not. I hope you’ll buy it early just so my mood will be better, but my chief desire is that you will like it and spread word of it to your friends. Most of my books are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1